Since Adam and Eve we have struggled to deal with conflict. We typically either try to avoid it at all costs or tackle it incompetently and let it spiral out of control. If the original human relationship had had a bit more conflict, perhaps Adam might have resisted Eve (if that were possible, since she was the only woman around). He might have argued with her over her offer of the fruit, debated the cosmic consequences and maybe tried to convince her of a different approach. But he didn’t and, as they say in the movies, the rest is history. With this example and despite the consequences, their son Cain more than slightly erred in the opposite direction. He famously let conflict spiral out of control and sorted it out in a very final manner!
Fast forward a few thousand years and we seem not to have vastly improved. Research shows that conflict is costing us dearly. A recent study that questioned 5 000 employees in Europe and the Americas and 660 HR practitioners in the UK found that the average employee spends 2,1 hours per week dealing with conflict. In the UK alone, “workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work” translates to 370 million working days lost every year.
So if we cannot avoid conflict, how can we become more competent at dealing with conflict and save our organisations millions?
Distinguish between healthy and unhealthy conflict
Conflict is often thought of as something that is negative per se – something to be avoided like an intrusive virus. But is it? It is through exploring conflicting views of reality, through challenging set opinions and engaging in robust debate that civilisations progress, societies grow, innovation flourishes and organisations prosper. Yet, conflict that spins out of control has cost civilisation dearly, in lives and money.
When building conflict-competent relationships and teams, to use a term coined by Runde and Flanagan , one should distinguish between task conflict (constructive) and personal conflict (destructive). Task conflict is essentially when we disagree about something outside ourselves. This is absolutely needed and is associated with a process of healthy, robust debate that allows the exploring of options, such as a strategy, a process, a way of doing something. Allowing ourselves to be challenged by each other’s opinions, views and approaches is an essential element of creativity and innovation, and counters the brain’s natural drive towards pattern making (where we figure it out, then stop consciously thinking about it and shift it to the habit or limbic brain).
Conflict goes wrong when it shifts from being task-focused to being person-focused. Evidence of this is when we start blaming others and attributing undesirable characteristics to the person with whom we are having the task conflict. “You don’t listen”, “You always …”, “Can’t you understand/think” are often indications that we have shifted towards unhealthy personal conflict, and this is where things often get counterproductive and potentially destructive.
So in building conflict competence, we need to understand conflict, become comfortable with it, yet manage it away from being personal.
Know your hardwired conflict approach
Irrespective of the level of leadership development work I do (personal, team, strategic etc), my expereince has been that a deep level of understanding of the blueprint of our own personality-DNA, more commonly called self-awareness, is one of the critical keys to progress and success. An important component of such self-awareness is understanding our personality’s hardwired response in conflict.
There are a number of psychometric type tools that can be used to help individuals and teams to understand their natural likely approach to conflict. I say ‘likely’ because we all have the ability to surprise ourselves and others. We are not victims of our personality DNA. Rather, a deep and thorough understanding of our likely responses in conflict situations (i.e., again, self-awareness) helps us to catch ourselves in the moment (before things spiral out of control) and choose behaviours that might be contrary to our blueprint, but that will more likely give us a successful outcome.
A great tool that helps individuals and teams to build self-awareness in conflict was developed by the psychologist Elias H Porter. Porter found that conflict typically has three phases. In phase 1 conflict still has the potential to be productive and positive as we remain able to entertain the issue on which we disagree, our own interest and the interest of the other. This is the territory of robust and constructive debate. However, in phase 2 we stop considering the interest and views of the other party and we lose some objectivity; and in phase 3 we drop the issue under contention and argue only for our own interest or point of view – in this phase the conflict is likely to get out of control and risks becoming personal. A critical element of building conflict competence is to learn to catch conflict before it goes beyond phase 1. To achieve this, we need to understand our own approach to the first phase of conflict, and identify and respect others’ first phases of conflict.
Every individual deals with these three phases in a predictable manner by following one of three approaches in different sequences. Porter outlines these approaches as follows (see Table 1): considering ways of accommodating the other (Blue); debating or engaging more forcefully (Red); reflecting and gathering more information (Green). The sequence with which we go through these strategies differs from person to person. For example, in the first phase of conflict, I personally want to engage, debate and take the issue head on (Red), while my partner would literally stand back, cross her arms and become quiet (Green). I experienced this as withdrawal and felt ignored, which made me angry and want to argue even harder (more Red), which made her even quieter. Very quickly we were in phase 2 of conflict and heading speedily down the spiral of destructive conflict. Understanding that her Green phase 1 meant that she needed to reflect and think first before engaging, was massive in helping us manage conflict far more competently.
Table 1: The building blocks of the stages of conflict sequence
Source: Elias H Porter, Relationship Awareness Theory, Personal Strengths Publishing, 1996
Building foundations of trust
Conflict competence in longer-term one-on-one or team relationships requires trust. Trust is the thread with which effective human relationships (and dealing with conflict competently) are woven together over time. There are many elements to building this type of trust, but my experience has been similar to that of Lencioni’s , namely that an easy entry to developing trust is for people to really get to know each others’ stories. Whether as part of leadership development, working with teams, or diversity training, this can be done through a structured process of getting to know each other through sharing personal stories. It requires a level of openness, vulnerability and authenticity that has the ability to shift relationships in a short space of time. At the end of such a process the reactions often are – somewhat similar to the meaning of namaste – “I acknowledge you. I see you! I see you beyond your exterior – the title you have, the job you do, the way you look. I see your heart …”
Once people connect with another’s story and experiences of heartache and joy, their humanity connects at a different level. It creates a relationship foundation for dealing with conflict more competently.
Play by the rules
Every game has rules. The clearer the rules, the better all can play the game. I often find that leadership groups and teams are conflict incompetent because they lack clear rules for dealing with the challenges of day-to-day interaction, disagreement and debate.
Providing structure and rules for when and how we interact and communicate goes a long way in building conflict competence. I often find teams surprised by how quickly they can solve challenges and make progress if they rigorously implement rules for ensuring quality conversations. The work of Nancy Kline and Runde and Flanagan provides practical guidelines and rules for setting up the sort of environment that facilitates conflict competence.
An open heart, mind and will
Listening well as part of communicating well is another one of those things that humankind has always struggled with. To be competent in conflict and go against what your own personality DNA might be shouting at you to do requires exceptional levels of listening competence. True listening implies being and staying open to what the other says. Otto Scharmer says this requires an open mind, open heart and open will.
An open mind requires me to keep my brain quiet. This means going against my limbic brain that guides me to jump to conclusions based on old knowledge, and really staying open and curious to the possibility of new facts and a different truth. An open heart means that I need to keep my emotion positive towards the other. I need to try and see reality through the other’s eyes and not fall into personal conflict, where I start attributing negative characteristics to the other. And an open will requires me to stay open to a different possible outcome – forcing me to remain in Porter’s conflict phase 1 and holding the possibility open for a different decision.
Reflect, adjust and celebrate
We are not always going to get it right. Sometimes being competent in conflict situations means calling for time out, letting the adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, and deciding to reconvene later. It is often not profitable to reflect on process in the heat of the moment.
And, when you do get it right, reflect on it, celebrate it and bank it for future use.
Danie Eksteen is a faculty member at USB-ED and founder of Strategic Human Capital Consulting. He is passionate about the strategic role of people and culture in successfully achieving business strategies and enjoys working with leadership teams in assessing and building all aspects of their effectiveness, including conflict competence.
1] Fight, flight or face it? Celebrating the effective management of conflict at work, a global research report by OPP® in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, July 2008.
2] Runde, C and Flanagan, A Building conflict competent teams, John Wiley and Sons, 2008
3] Roberto, M. Why great leaders don’t take yes for an answer. Philadelphia, Warton School of Publishing, 2005.
4] Amason, A and Sapienza, H. Distinguishing the effect of functional and dysfunctional conflict on strategic decision making: Resolving a paradox for top management teams, Academy of Management Journal, 1996, 39(1).
5] Lencioni, P. Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers and facilitators. Jossey-Bass, 2005.
6] Nancy Kline’s Time to think, Cassel Illustrated, 1999.
7] See footnote 2.
8] Scharmer, O and Kaufer, K. Leading from the emerging future, Berrett-Koehler, 2013.